Can I See You Again? by Christopher Green
It happens so abruptly: the woman is not there, and then, like a heart attack or a good idea, she is there. She sets down her beer glass on the narrow, lacquered oak table, slips her purse from her shoulder and rummages until she finds her phone. When she checks it, its glow spotlights her blunt-tipped nose, her wide, curious eyes, her dusting of freckles. Then she puts it away, and all that remains of her is what the skyline around them can illuminate—pale highlights around the contours of her shoulders, down the threads of her hair.
Milo tries to watch her without looking. In his chest, a blossoming queasiness. He knows he should say something, because what, really, are the odds that someone else would come alone to a rooftop bar in Chelsea? Who but him would pay twelve dollars for a cocktail only to down it in two minutes, with his back to the view, idly skimming through a list of Thirteen Cats Who Just Can’t Even Today? Her mere presence is a gift, a portent, and that he talk to her now, before she has time to slip back into the hazy periphery of the crowd, is all but an existential necessity. And so he leans against the table, ducking into her field of view, and says hi.
Probably the woman will ignore him, or else shoot him a head-tilting smile with all the warmth of an air raid siren. But in fact, she does neither: she looks up, says, “Hey, how are you?” And it is as though Milo has been looking at the world through a kaleidoscope lens, and when it shifts, the pieces rearrange themselves. He wonders why he was ever afraid of her in the first place.
They talk for ten minutes. She has two dogs, and he sometimes Skypes with the dog back at his parents’ house in Virginia. So they have something in common. She loves Mindy Kaling; he loves Broad City. They exchange recipes they both got from the Times (gazpacho, fried eggplant, red wine sorbet). Everything is going beautifully. Then she asks what he majored in in college, and when he says Literature she picks up her purse and beer and leaves him there. Disappears into the mob at the other end of the roof.
Milo stares after her, blinking. Emergency? he wonders. Did she get sick? But he knows better, of course—he saw, in that last fleeting moment while she gathered up her things, the grim finality in the woman’s eyes. He feels the very particular and calamitous sensation of having done something wrong.
Two minutes later the woman sets her beer glass down on the table, slips her purse from her shoulder, and rummages until she finds her phone. Milo stares at her, unable to conceal his open-mouthed distress. “Hey,” he says. “Where did you go?”
The woman turns to face him. She seems bewildered by the question. “Excuse me?”
“Where did you go? You just left. I didn’t think you were coming back.”
Her eyes narrow; her lip twists into a revolted sneer. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You—” Milo stops, makes a quick reassessment of the woman, just to be sure. And yes, it is her—same nose, same freckles. The modest dip in the neckline of that blue dress, the way the hair sweeps across her bare shoulders when she turns. “Yeah, we—we were just talking, and you asked me about college, and I—”
But the woman rolls her eyes, heaves a great, why-me sort of sigh, and gathers up her things and leaves again. Milo stands there, watching the top of her head press into the crush of bodies and then vanish, trying to decide if he has ever been so utterly perplexed in his life.
Two minutes later the woman sets her beer glass down on the table, slips her purse from her shoulder, and rummages until she finds her phone.
“Hey,” Milo says, uncertainly, the way he might press a fingertip against the side of a pan to see if it will still burn him.
The woman looks up, gives him a bright, TV anchor smile. “Hi.”
“Um. Having a good night?”
“Pretty good, yeah. You?”
And so the talk resumes as though it never ended, and although Milo is fairly convinced now that he fell off the roof at some point and this is his own unique form of purgatory, he manages it well, grinning his same grin, making all the same jokes, at which the woman laughs no less enthusiastically than she did the first time. They debate the merits of the New York City bus system. They compare favorite Weezer albums, and when, as she’s taking a drink, he mentions that one video they did with the Muppets, her cheeks bulge out, her eyes widen, and she shakes her free hand at him in excitement. “Yes!” she says, swallowing. “Yes, I love that video!”
It’s only when the conversation turns to travel, and Milo mentions how he has never been able to find the time or money to make it overseas, that the woman picks up her purse and beer and leaves again. “I’ve been to Seattle, though!” he announces, to no one in particular.
Two minutes later the woman sets her beer glass down on the table, slips her pu—
“Hi,” Milo says to her, extending his hand.
This time the woman stays for fifteen minutes, and leaves only when Milo tells her that once, in college, in a fit of oblivious rebellion against his parents, he voted Republican. The next time she stays for eight minutes, and leaves when he says he has only ever voted staunchly Democrat. Twice she leaves when he spills his drink. One time she sits down, throws her purse on the table, and asks, “Do you want to go back to your place?” And when Milo hesitates, she rolls her eyes, picks the purse back up, and stalks away, muttering, “There are no real men left in this city.”
One time she stays for eleven minutes and then leaves for absolutely no reason at all. They seemed to be doing pretty well, although there was one lengthy awkward pause—ten, maybe fifteen seconds—right before she left. Milo assumes that was what did it. But then maybe, too, it was that creepy way he touched her shoulder, or how strangely effusive he was about his older sister’s best friend in high school, or even just the simple, permeating sense of his own discomfort with this woman, so beautiful, so graceful, a wavelength ever so slightly misaligned with his own. There are so many ways to disappoint someone. The permutations of his inadequacy are so boundless as to be vaguely sickening to think about, like leaning too far out over a railing. That’s what he has to look forward to, he thinks, for the rest of his life: conversational vertigo.
Two minutes later the woman sets her beer glass down on the table, slips her purse from her shoulder, and rummages until she finds her phone. Milo watches her, sadly, openly. By now he has ordered so many drinks that there is barely even one of her; her silhouette splits sideways, like a 3-D picture without the glasses. But God—he loves the way she moves. Spread of her fingers over the back of the phone. Curve of her body as she settles against the table with one hip. He wonders how many minutes he would have to talk to her before he could tell her this.
Then the woman notices him. “Hi,” she says, and Milo is surprised to hear that she sounds concerned. “Are you alright?”
He locks up. A sensation like chill fingertips shimmies down the back of his neck. She has never said hi first. He doesn’t know what he did differently. But now she’s watching him, waiting for an answer, the moments piling up toward the threshold beyond which he will make her uncomfortable, before this, too, will be—
“Yeah,” he says, leaning heavily against the table, hoping that he has managed an adequate impression of casual. “Yeah, I’m all right. How are you?”
The woman pouts her lips and lets out a puffing sigh. “I don’t know. Not great.”
“Oh,” Milo says, straightening, “yeah, no, me neither. I thought we were just being polite, but yeah, if we’re doing the honesty thing this night is going terribly.”
She laughs. The phone disappears back into her purse, quickly, almost furtively. “Well we may as well have a terrible time together.” She holds a hand out and says, “I’m Kasey.”
Milo hesitates. Kasey? Her name is Kasey? Jesus, how did he not know that? How did he go this many times without asking? But there it is now: two syllables, short and playful. He resists the urge to repeat them silently in front of her, but he can feel them there anyway, rioting on the surface of his tongue. Kasey. He won’t admit this to himself tonight, or for a long time after, but right now, with the sound of her lips forming that name over and over in the echo chamber of his memory, he is a little, just a little in love with her.
“Milo,” he replies, and takes her offered hand. When they shake, the contact burns down every nerve ending like the fuse on a stick of dynamite. The bar pitches and spins, and for one moment Milo forgets everything it took to get here, the confusion and anxiety and humiliation which he has paid in like raffle tickets for this one chance. “I majored in Literature,” he tells her. “I’ve never been abroad. I once voted Republican in college. And I don’t do one-night stands.”
Kasey laughs, the sort of puzzled laugh that makes her features all bunch together. “Uhh, okay,” she replies. “I’m Kasey. I majored in Business Management and French. I went to Israel once, but I was too young to remember. I have never voted Republican, but I think we’re allowed to make mistakes when we’re young. And I also do not have one-night stands.”
How strange, he thinks. So many go, and the reasons for their going dissipate so quickly, so that all that can be remembered is the absence itself. But somehow, the ones he finds the most bewildering are the ones who stay. Their reasons close around him, like two arms slipped over his shoulders, but when he reaches for them they pull away, and hover instead at the edge of his vision, returning only when he has given up looking.
They talk for one hundred and ten minutes. Kasey taps a number into his phone and says, “Thanks for a terrible night.” He waves goodbye, stumbles out of the bar. All the way back to the train he keeps catching himself laughing, out loud, like a lunatic. Strangers pretend to ignore him, and to his drunken, addled mind even this feels like a gesture of affection.
They meet again on a Thursday, and again on the following Saturday, and then again on Wednesday. Each night is a blur to Milo, just a series of disconnected images: strings of lights along the top of a bay window; swirls of pink chalk on a chalkboard; chrome edged table, plate of sweet potato fries; gray-haired woman playing Chinese violin in the doorway of a closed shop. The only clear part is Kasey. Center of a galaxy built for two. He walks her back as far as the nearest subway, and there, at the top of the stairs underground, she makes a show of deliberating and then asks to come home with him instead. “But just,” she adds, quickly, “just to sleep. I mean—well, probably not just to sleep. But above the belt. Deal?”
Milo takes a second to answer. He wants to relish this moment, too rare in the life of the modern adult: when two people are just about to give each other something they both desperately need. “Yeah,” he says. “Deal.”
Hours later they lie together across his bed. Her chin on the ridge of his shoulder, her arm draped across his belly, the whole landscape just a tangle of sheets and body parts. Milo stares out the window, sleepless and elated. His breathing quickens, slows. Not in six months at least has he been able to see the city in such startling detail, roofs stretched to the horizon like squat, sheer hills. He wants to never sleep again; he wants to take up permanent residence in the night, grab the minutes in both hands and pull them out into weeks. To live without the threat of morning, of the future steeping itself in the present, like black ink spreading through a glass of milk. Kasey stirs, half-risen from sleep. Her hair tickles his neck just below the ear.
They walk arm in arm through the leafy corridors of Prospect Park. Duck into galleries on Lexington Avenue. Kiss beneath the arch in Washington Square, and then absolve themselves by making jokes about tourists. Sometimes, at what appear to be the least intimate moments, she will reach for his hand, slip through his fingers and then grip them, hard, as though to make sure he’s still there. He’ll look at her, but her attention will already be fixed elsewhere, flitting to the margins.
He learns the names of her two dogs (Mallory, Tom Servo). She plays racquetball with his best friend. They host a Thanksgiving dinner together for fourteen people; he mostly ruins the turkey, and she goes out for extra wine. In December, when Kasey’s appendix bursts, Milo cancels his flight home and stays with her in the hospital overnight until her parents arrive. In her room together, she in bed and he in a wooden chair that makes his ass hurt after thirty minutes, they watch Rudolph with the volume down and the captions on. “You want me to change it?” he asks after a while, but when he turns she has fallen asleep. Her hair across the pillow like a crow’s wing. He tries to focus on the TV, but after a while he nods off, too. He keeps one arm on the mattress, laid parallel to hers, just above the hip. In case she wants it in the night. And at around three-thirty he wakes to feel a pressure closing around his wrist. He looks up, bleary-eyed and uncertain, to find her arm laid atop his. Above it, her eyes watching him in the near-dark, little more than pinpricks of lamplight in the irises. It is the first time, in all their months together, that they have seen each other while they hold hands.
One morning in February he stops by her apartment. knocking the snow from his shoes as she buzzes him in. When he gets to the end of the hall she is there, waiting for him at the base of the stairwell. She’s been crying; her cheeks are raw from the scrape of her dry fingers. Milo sees her and stops. His throat pinches closed; his body prickles with adrenaline. Here, at last, a moment that does seem to stretch out, on and on; by the end of it, he will have memorized the sight of her well enough to recall it with photographic accuracy for months.
“I’m sorry,” Kasey says. “Milo. I’m so sorry.”
What were the particulars? He can’t say. It’s as though he was listening to a conversation on the other side of a thin wall. The syllables muddled and indistinct, but the inflection as familiar as the melody of an old pop song. Kasey was sad, incomparably sad, he remembers that—so why do it at all? And why, in the weeks that followed, did she refuse to answer his calls, his texts? This is the real puzzle: how does a woman who once pressed herself around you in the early hours of morning, who fashioned you into an extension of her own body, just cease to exist? He treads slowly back over the span of their relationship, searching for fault lines, but all he sees are the good things. He sits on the floor in the center of her living room with two panting, enthusiastic animals circling around his head. He shows up at her office with her sister and cousin and a large German chocolate birthday cake. She buys him a set of windchimes from a store in Portland and hangs them in his bedroom window, far from any wind. She pulls him down on top of her after sex, wraps her arms around him and hugs tightly for long minutes, breathing slow, deliberate breaths into his neck.
In May he returns to the bar, orders a cocktail, and waits. One hour, two. Certain that she will not come. But eventually she does, late in the night, after most everyone else has left. She sets her beer glass down on the table, slips her purse from her shoulder, and rummages until she finds her phone.
Milo looks at her, all the little details invisible in other Kaseys so clear to him now: anxious knit of her brow, scar just above and to the left of the collar bone. “Kasey,” he says, almost without meaning to. The name like a first breath at the end of a long dive.
Kasey turns to face him, taken aback. “Yeah?” she asks. Standing turned away, a profile, most of her body invisible to him. The phone is still in her hand. “Do I know you?”
Milo smiles. The reaction surprises him, actually; he was certain that to see her again would pain him. And it does, of course, as it always will. But this is what hope is: a wound suffered over and over until it finally saves your life.
He offers his hand, and Kasey—slowly, hesitantly—takes it.
“Not yet,” he says.
© Christopher Green, 2015
Christopher is a recent New York transplant from Cincinnati, currently residing in Brooklyn with two roommates and one slightly internet-famous cat. His stories have appeared in several journals and magazines such as Burner, The MacGuffin, and The Ampersand Review. In addition, he is the founder and co-host of The Prose Bowl, a monthly fiction writers' open mic held at Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg. He is currently working with his agent to publish two novels, one of which is sort of about vampires but not really and it's kind of a whole big thing and maybe he just shouldn't have brought it up.
Can I See You Again? was read by Amber Bogdewiecz on 2nd December 2015 for Magic & Moonlight